“It was a moment of hope,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, a veteran activist and former Hong Kong lawmaker. At the time, the city was eight years old to move from British to Chinese control, and had a feeling that young protesters across the border might be changing China for the better.
“For many Hong Kong people, we feel that 1997 really was on our heads. But young people in China demanded democracy, and we think that if they succeed, it means that Hong Kong will not have to live under an authoritarian regime.”
However, that hope turned to despair as the People’s Liberation Army crushed the protests on June 4. No official death toll has been released, but rights groups estimate hundreds, if not thousands, were killed. The Tiananmen protests and repression have been erased from the history books in China, censored and controlled, the organizers exiled or arrested, and the relatives of the deceased were kept under close surveillance.
On Monday, police rejected permission for this year’s rally, citing ongoing restrictions on mass meetings related to the coronavirus pandemic. To many in the democratic opposition, the justification sounds hollow: organizers had said they would work with authorities to ensure a safe and socially distant concentration, and in the meantime the city’s business districts, subways, and public parks have been open for weeks with very little. trouble.
Speaking to reporters after the ban was announced, Lee said police were “cracking down on our vigil on the pretext of enforcing the ban on the meeting.”
The police decision has extra weight as many already feared this week it could be the last chance
to freely mark the anniversary. Last month, China announced that it would impose a national security law in Hong Kong, in response to widespread and often violent anti-government unrest last year.
The law penalizes secession, sedition and subversion. It also allows Chinese security services to operate in Hong Kong for the first time, raising fear among many in the city that EPL members may be deployed on the streets if protests resume.
The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, the group co-founded by Lee that has organized the Tiananmen Vigil every year since 1990, has warned that it could be banned
under the new law, noting his previous support for activists convicted under similar national security laws in China and a longstanding opposition to the “one-party dictatorship.”
There is good reason to believe that vigil may be prohibited in the future. Last month, CY Leung, a former city chief executive and senior member of a Chinese government advisory body, predicted so much
, while a commemoration in neighboring Macao, which already has a national security law on the books, also been blocked by the authorities
Tiananmen had an indelible effect on Hong Kong politics. The protests were held in solidarity with pro-democracy protesters before the massacre, and many activists in the city traveled north to offer assistance and support.
After the repression, “Operation Yellow Bird
“It helped smuggle protesters from Beijing and others at risk of arrest into the city, even then a British territory. According to the Hong Kong Alliance, some 500 people were drawn from China, including student protest leaders like Wu ‘er Kaixi, who famously debated Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng at the height of the protests.
In the years after the crackdown, pressure grew on the British to do more to protect Hong Kong under the impending Chinese government, and in 1994 Governor Chris Patten made the city parliament elections fully democratic for the first time. Once, a measure that was not approved by London and was enraged in Beijing.
The Legislative Council elected the following year was the first and only time that Parliament had a pro-democratic majority. It dissolved and replaced
by a Beijing-designated body as soon as Chinese control over the city took hold.
In the eight years after Tiananmen, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people moved abroad, although many returned shortly after the handover after a feared crackdown failed to materialize and the city enjoyed an economic boom under its new rulers. However, most returnees came with foreign passports in their back pockets, ready to flee again if things took a negative turn.
A renewed exodus may be on the horizon thanks to the new national security law. Following China’s announcement, the UK moved to extend some rights
for British (overseas) national passport holders, of whom there are some 300,000 in Hong Kong and up to 3 million citizens born in the city before 1997 eligible to apply. London said that if the law goes ahead, BNO holders will be granted a 12-month stay in the UK, up from 6 months, giving them a potential path to British citizenship.
What happens next?
In two decades of Chinese rule, the Tiananmen memorial was always something that set Hong Kong apart, a litmus test to determine if the city’s liberties and autonomy were still protected.
It has also served as a kind of incubator for political talent, often being among the first demonstrations attended by many Hong Kong people. Many activists, including former Umbrella Movement leaders Nathan Law and Joshua Wong, have spoken of the effect of the June 4 memorial on their own political awakening.
Last year, city leader Carrie Lam pointed
to the annual rally as proof that “Hong Kong is a very free society”.
“If there are public meetings to express their views and feelings on a particular historical incident, we fully respect those views,” he said.
When asked this week if the meeting would be prohibited under the new national security law, Lam said, “We don’t have the law drafted right now. We can handle this later.”
Hong Kong officials have insisted that concerns about the legislation are exaggerated, and that the new crimes of sedition, subversion and secession will only apply to a small handful of people, even though they admit they are also largely in the dark about Beijing’s plans.
In a statement on the law last week, the Hong Kong Alliance warned that it was “like a knife to the neck of all Hong Kong people.”
“Even if it only cuts a few, it threatens the freedom of the 7 million,” the group said. “It is the implementation of the rule out of fear in Hong Kong.”
For now, they are still defying that fear, even as coronavirus restrictions have thwarted plans for a mass demonstration. Smaller meetings will be held throughout the city, and the Alliance has called all residents
Light candles at 8 p.m., holding them outside your windows to recreate the sea of light that has become a common image of the annual vigil at Victoria Park.
“Will Hong Kongers be able to celebrate the vigil next year? One year is an eternity in politics and the predictions are dangerous,” wrote Chinese academic Jerome Cohen. this week
. However, unless there is an unexpected change in leadership in Beijing, it surely seems likely, especially in light of the upcoming (national security law), that Hong Kong could follow Macao succumbing to the amnesia that has been forced for a long time on the continent. “
CNN’s Chermaine Lee contributed reporting.